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Don Nelson dies at 86; writer for 'Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet'

Screenwriter Don Nelson, younger brother of Ozzie Nelson, contributed to more than 200 episodes of the popular TV show 'Ozzie and Harriet.' He was also a jazz singer and saxophonist.

September 11, 2013|By Devin Kelly, Los Angeles Times
  • Don Nelson, second from right in back row, performed in the 1980s and ’90s as a soprano saxophonist, vocalist and composer for the Los Angeles-based Great Pacific Jazz Band. Also shown in 1987 are band members, back row from left, Rubin Zarchy, Jack Wadsworth, Burr Middleton and Jim Turner and, front row from left, Bob Ringwald and Bob Havens.
Don Nelson, second from right in back row, performed in the 1980s and ’90s… (Los Angeles Times )

Don Nelson, a screenwriter, film producer and musician who co-wrote scripts for "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" — the classic American television series centered on his brother Ozzie's family — as well as for more than two dozen other films and TV series, has died. He was 86.

Nelson, who had Parkinson's disease, died of an aortic aneurysm Tuesday at his home in Studio City, said his wife, Marilyn.

As a staff writer for "Ozzie and Harriet," one of the longest-running family comedies in TV history, Nelson came up with Ricky Nelson's trademark catchphrase "I don't mess around, boy," and contributed to more than 200 episodes of the series with storylines anchored famously on the harmless. The show, which ran from 1952 to 1966, enjoyed enormous popularity and cast the mold for successors such as "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver."

In a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Nelson observed that "Ozzie and Harriet" epitomized the era while drawing its share of critics and parodies.

"We have been blamed for all the ills of the '50s and '60s and have been praised for all the good things about those decades because it presented a way of life that was a little idyllic," Nelson said.

His talent for comedic writing landed him jobs at Universal Studios, Fox Studios and Hanna-Barbera Productions, working on shows that included "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "Nanny and the Professor" and "Bridget Loves Bernie." Nelson also co-wrote four feature films for Disney Studios, including "Gus" and "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo."

In a musical family, Nelson carved out a name for himself as a jazz singer and soprano saxophonist, releasing two albums — "The Wind" (1957) and "Sittin' In" with Johnny Varro (1986). Until about five years ago, Nelson was a fixture at jazz venues in the San Fernando Valley.

Donald Richard Nelson was born Jan. 20, 1927, in Hackensack, N.J., and grew up in the nearby borough of Tenafly. A 21-year age difference separated him from his brother Ozzie, and by the time Nelson reached high school, Ozzie Nelson had launched a career as a bandleader, with a number of popular recordings and a billing on the radio show "Ripley's Believe It or Not." At 16, Nelson joined Ozzie's band as a saxophonist.

About a year later, Nelson left high school with a war diploma and enlisted in the Navy. He played saxophone in the Navy band, entertaining troops aboard ships in Hawaii and the Pacific.

His jazz performance career included a long stint in the 1980s and '90s as a soprano saxophonist, vocalist and composer for the Los Angeles-based Great Pacific Jazz Band, led by pianist Bob Ringwald.

He also co-wrote the 1952 film "Here Come the Nelsons," the Nelsons' only theatrical feature. The film, which starred Rock Hudson, essentially served as a pilot for the TV version of the popular radio series, on which Nelson also worked as a writer.

He outlived all four members of the Nelson TV family; Ozzie Nelson died of liver cancer in 1975, Rick Nelson died in a plane crash in 1985, Harriet Nelson died in 1994, and David Nelson died in 2011.

His is survived by his third wife, Marilyn; his daughters Kathy Nelson and Laurie Nelson Weatherston; and stepchildren Michael, Marc and Matthew Williams and Michael Griffin.

devin.kelly@latimes.com

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